Wu Fei

World Music Foundation Podcast | Season 1, Episode 16

“I had been craving for freedom.”

About this Episode

Wu Fei describes herself as an ancient soul trapped in a feisty woman’s body. Hailing from Beijing, China, Wu Fei is a multi-talented musician and composer known for playing and improvising on the traditional Chinese guzheng as well as improvisational singing and piano. Fei talks to John about her life as a child prodigy, transitioning from China to the U.S., how both countries have influenced her and her music, and what it was like to hear American music for the first time in her teenage years. She also discusses her critically acclaimed original work “Hello Gold Mountain.”

(Intro Music Plays)

John Gardner: Hello, Hello, and welcome again to the world music foundation podcast. I’m your host, John Gardner, and today we speak with the genre-bending Guzheng virtuoso extraordinaire, Wu Fei.

The world music foundation podcast is produced by The World Music Foundation. We’re a non-profit with a simple mission: to open minds through music. Hopefully, as you listen to the stories and the interviews in these podcasts, you see the similarities much more than the differences. No matter who the artist or the guest are, no matter what part of the world, we’re all Just humans trying to make our way in this crazy world.

Today’s guest has experiences that we can all relate to, but we can also strive to emulate the boldness, the curiosity, the drive, these are strong characteristics that many of the top achieving artists that we interview share, and Wu Fei is a great example of it.

Beyond her Guzheng playing- Ugh, still hesitant to try the different tones, I hope I’m not butchering it- besiders her amazing instrumental playing, she’s also an acclaimed award-winning composer. Her latest work, Hello Gold Mountain, was awarded Best Classical Work of the year for 2019 by Nashville Scene, and with good reason. 

You’ll hear all about that piece in this interview, of course, but that was just a great piece of news to read. I actually read it just days after our interview, when that award was announced. See, this interview was recorded last year, actually. It’s only coming out now because I haven’t been able to do this part, my recording of the intro, due to a flu, then bronchitis, then pneumonia. It’s been- not the merriest of seasons.

But we’re back at it, we’re excited about some upcoming episodes. And now I can finally bring you my conversation, which I enjoyed so much, with Wu Fei. 

(Interview Begins)

John Gardner: Hello, Hello, and welcome again to the world music foundation podcast. I’m your host, John Gardner, and today we have the great pleasure to speak with Wu Fei, “Guzheng”-

Wu Fei: Guzheng”.

John Gardner: “Guzheng”.

Wu Fei: Yep.

John Gardner: A “Guzheng”?

Wu Fei: Mhm… Kind of like singing.

John Gardner: Yeah. The tones, I get nervous like, should I even try that tone? So, “Guzheng”-

Wu Fei: Perfect.

John Gardner: -player and improviser. Thank you so much for being here.

Wu Fei: Thank you for having me, John.

John Gardner: So, we’re gonna talk about your career, the projects you’re doing, music you make. But to start off with, we have listeners from all different parts of the world. We want to first get to know you. Could you give us kind of an origin story, and take us back to your first memories of music and maybe even your first memories of music from outside your culture?

Wu Fei: Um, alright. That goes long- I’m forty one years old, um I have been playing music since- for the last thirty six years, if I do the math right (Laughs). The first time um- that I remember um- starting doing music was actually- it wasn’t my choice. Um- one day I remember two music professors, I think they were my dad’s friends, came to our house when I was five or four-ish, something like that, and touched my fingers and touched my bones and tested my pitches and rhythms– and they would tap a rhythm on a table so I would repeat just to test my memory as well. And then later I found out that was the entrance test of- to see if I was qualified to study music.

John Gardner: Oh wow.

Wu Fei: And then I passed the test, obviously (Laughs). I passed the test, I remember the two professors were really happy, so they even took us out for dinner and had photos taken, so uh- ever since I have not stopped playing music.

John Gardner: Wow.

Wu Fei: So that was my first memory, how it all started, to have those- the photos from that day actually.

John Gardner: Wow. So they- there was something they saw that- that they could see down the road, they could see the great musician you’re gonna become. Have you ever asked them, what were you checking for? What was the form?

Wu Fei: I would like to ask them, actually. My dad- I asked my dad once um- a few years back like How did you see music talent in me? He’s very musically talented as well. Um- he’s a musician, and he said right maybe around when I was two and a half or three, he just saw that- he just knew that I had music talent and he really wanted me to study music and then it took them awhile to find an ideal teacher because, when I was young, I think China was still in the like early eighties, that’s when China just opened you know- stopped the whole cultural revolution, the chaos. Ten years of chaos stopped and then finally people had more opportunities and chances to um- pursue what they wanted to do. So I was young and I was almost the first generation in Beijing, the big city that um- my other parents started to think, okay they could go see arts and music instead of just engineering and other things. So, um- and yeah so my dad basically said that he saw it and then he wanted- He was (?) and I was like alright, great dad! I have fulfilled your dream, I guess.

John Gardner: Great. And what instrument did you start with?

Wu Fei: I started with Guzheng.

John Gardner: Oh. From the beginning?

Wu Fei: Yeah from the very beginning. My dad, he plays the Sanxian which is the- I would call it the traditional Chinese fretless banjo. Um- and he wanted me to learn that first. I’m like no way, I’m not learning what you play-

John Gardner: Right (Laughs).

Wu Fei: No. No, no, no (Laughs).

John Gardner: Ah, kids.

Wu Fei: And then the next day, then he- well the next time I remember the house there was a gigantic coffin-looking thing, I was like “woah” and our house was really small so it looked even huge, really huge. Um- and that’s how I started, that was the first instrument. And then, um- I think I made a progress really fast. Somehow the music talent that- uh my Guzheng teacher just convinced my parents that, oh she must study solfège and ear training and music theory at the weekend school at China conservatory of music where she taught. And then that’s when I started going to the weekend school, at the age of probably eight-and-a-half or nine-ish. Um- just studying two hours of music theory and uh- (?) and then I realized that I needed to uh- learn piano in order to make progress of- on that. Because it was mostly western classical training.

John Gardner: Really?

Wu Fei: So it was from I think mostly the Russian school and the French school, that textbooks were from Paris conservatory and Moscow conservatory. And then uh- so uh- and then I had to start piano, So it was Guzheng and Piano, but they were kind of not so hard I felt. They’re similar plucking on the fingers. The way you move your fingers is very similar. Um- anyway, so that’s um- and then I’ve been playing both ever since.

John Gardner: The- You’re saying that the textbooks were French, Russian…

Wu Fei: Mhm.

John Gardner: Do you think that has any connection, was there a lack of textbooks due to the cultural revolution? Why were you not learning Chinese classical music or traditional music?

Wu Fei: Chinese classical traditional music was on the Guzheng. It was definitely all Chinese original stuff. However, in the conservatory, in order to- I mean you learn the traditional stuff from your music teacher. But for ear training, solfège, and music theory, there was already maybe a very well-made system that China could just borrow. And I think at the time, there weren’t much of Chinese music- like theory that was based on Chinese music. It wasn’t even considered. I think at the time also China wanted to gain confidence to be modernized, so the old Chinese stuff means too old, so we must embrace-in order to be modernized, we must learn what the Europeans have come up with (Laughs).

John Gardner: Yeah, we see that a lot and then it takes some years down the road like, wait a minute we’re sitting on this treasure, we should probably focus our attention on this great treasure of music you have.

Wu Fei: It has had- yeah, a big turnaround. Yeah, I can see it. But at that time, I mean the country was very poor and didn’t- was closed for so many years and uh- people were hungry for new things outside of China, so that happened quite quickly.

John Gardner: Do you know by chance- uh, it’s been a long time since you’ve been going to the studies this way, but do you know now if they have theory books now on Chinese music? Or it’s still based on French…

Wu Fei: I think there are, there are. Even when I was in college at the conservatory we started to learn- not necessarily theory, but more the history. What system has been created through Chinese traditional music. But there isn’t, not that I know of. There’s a, like a system where theory- how it explains everything, how everything works. I guess philosophically, um Chinese music is not very for like logic. Where a philosophy is more- I mean more philosophy, but I mean more abstract, more for like a mindset, or meditative, or- not for performing arts. Traditionally, it’s not to entertain people, it’s to self exercise.

John Gardner: Wow. Very interesting. That’s quite a bit different from a lot of students nowadays, especially in the last- the only reason they’re learning, they want to get on stage. Much different approach.

Wu Fei: Right, what I’ve been trying to do. When I study the- yeah the traditional text and then obviously it wasn’t for that purpose.

John Gardner: Yeah, wow, So, you learned piano and you’re still playing to this day. How- What happens after your- this was in college when you were learning- learning the piano at night- actually, you said you were still very young when you- when you were learning.

Wu Fei: Oh, no. I was in elementary school. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I started Guzheng at five and then about eight to nine-ish started piano. So, that was, like, throughout my life.

John Gardner: So, this was- was, what happens next? You’re still in Beijing?

Wu Fei: I- yes. My entire life.

John Gardner: Did you go to university?

Wu Fei: I got into the conservatory high school. China conservatory high school at age fifteen. I was in the China conservatory from fifteen to basically when I left China to come to America- um I think I was twenty or twenty one. So I was in the conservatory for six years. Yeah.

John Gardner: So you’ve already kind of touched on this from elementary or starting piano, that you’re starting to learn this European system. Do you remember the first time hearing music that was not Chinese? Did that stand out to you? Or was it permeating around you?

Wu Fei: Oh, there was a lot of non-Chinese music actually- actually it was the non-Chinese music that- you know have some happy memory of music because for me I was forced to study Guzheng and I just um- you know, as a kid I hated to practice. I want to sound good but it takes hours. So everyday, for- throughout my entire childhood, everyday minimum was two hours of practice since I was five. I was just absolutely bottom line, minimum of two hours. But if it was winter or summer break, usually the music competitions- uh were happening only during summer break and winter break, and that’s when my practice had to extend to about for to eight hours every day. Just to compete in lots of competition. Um, so- it wasn’t even- even though playing the Guzheng wasn’t happy time for me- like it’s too much- I could hear the kids playing ball outside, I was like “Oh, why can’t I be playing with them?” So I’m watching the clock, oh is it two hours now? No, it’s only twenty minutes (Laughs). So that was my life for my entire childhood. But uh- well, first I would say when I heard non-Chinese music was on TV, on the radio. That’s when China just started to have TV, the black and white, those really little ones. And there was a- there was a lot of performing- professional, performing troupes in China that was state-owned. They are still state-owned now, that the state run government performing troupes- um, and I remember one of them. Their specialty is to play world music and world dance, When I was a kid, and when I saw them doing dance- It was Chinese performers doing African dance and Chinese performers doing Indian dance. And Chinese performers doing like an Indonesian thing. So I was so fascinated by the sound of- and their costumes of the music and dance, and there were lots of imported movies from India, from Bollywood, from Pakistan, from Japan, and from Brazil. Everywhere except America, I think it was like some kind of a cold war, so there was very few American things. But I really got to listen to, like folk music from Sri Lanka. It was like- I can’t hum it or memorize it. From- from Malaysia, from Japan, from Korea, uh basically, oh from Albania, from Syria. It was actually, a lot of their music was on TV, So I- Now I realized I had a fairly rich world music. Not education, I was just in love with  what’s being played on TV.

John Gardner: Just that exposure, that becomes a part of you, that becomes a part of your history. It’ the whole idea of-

Wu Fei: Yeah. Yes. Yes. It was part of my upbringing. Not knowing that’s world music, that’s like wow, it was so fun. We Chinese people don’t have dance like the Indian dance. Where with the bells, like percussion when they dance, so it was just so cool. So that, that was- it was actually throughout my childhood and then later, I think maybe when I was maybe ten or twelve-ish, my elementary school was a sister school with a- developed a sister school relationship with the school from Tokyo. And then a bunch of students from that school, from Tokyo, came to Beijing, and I was already kind of in the music talent group kids. We would go there to- We would learn a few Japanese songs and then they learn a few Chinese songs and then we sing together and then we have dinner and then from that trip, one of the Japanese girls gave me a cassette tape. It was my first Japanese-made cassette tape. I was like what’s on it? She said, oh it is basically her favorite cassette tape, and that changed my life too, it was like Michael Jackson, it was Madonna, and a Japanese Jazz composer. What’s his name? Kitaro, uh- the Taiko drum. The Japanese Koto playing jazz. I thought that’s got to be Guzheng, but that’s not Guzheng. What is it? That sounds like- the tuning was even similar.

John Gardner: Really?

Wu Fei: So I, I was blown away and uh- Yeah that’s the first time American music, Michael Jackson, Madonna.

John Gardner: Wow. And what age were you at that point roughly?

Wu Fei: Twelve. Twelve-ish. Eleven Twelve-ish.

John Gardner: Wow. And then who woulda thought all these years later now you’re living in the U.S. How did that happen from experiencing all these cultures, all over the world through music, and then starting to be more involved through Japanese- the exchange of musical ideas. How- What made you decide to come to the U.S? What brought you here? How did that become a part of your musical idea.

Wu Fei: Um, even since I was a kid, um- I think in Chinese society um- America was like an icon of- it’s almost similar to the rest of the world. Really America has been an icon of this uh- possibility. Just where you could chase your dreams. That sort of thing. And when I was a kid, I’d already learned that a lot of intellectuals from China had been to America and have become much more than they could have become rather than staying I believe. They were really appreciative about universities in America. So I had that kind of impression about, oh that’s a cool country. And then after hearing Michael Jackson and Madonna I was like wow! I really need to check it out over there (Laughs). And uh- After I- especially under the China conservatory of music high school, all our professors were very international oriented. They’re all experts on all sorts of music. Um, music history, music colleges, music composers, performers and that have gone- performed abroad, and their photos with other artists, Oh wow I want that too. It’s you know, influenced from the teachers as well. And uh- and the things we were studying, uh there had been besides European composers, Japanese composers- Asian composers were also- American composers. Uh- when I learned John Cage, that was like oh wow that’s kind of either cool or strange. I don’t know what it is, but it came from America and I um- I wasn’t really into a lot of contemporary classical compositions that I had to study as a student. It was- I mean being cool can be too like a fashion thing. When it becomes a fashion thing then I get turned off by it. Okay, then what’s next, you know, if you just keep like following the fashion. So and then um- I was a little just confused from studying all these kind of atonal stuff. Atonal was huge when I was in high school. I had to write my own atonal stuff just so I could fit in, you know what I mean (Laughs). And probably resulted in me wanting to grasp rhythm again, those melodies again. I was like “AHH” gosh that didn’t work for me.

John Gardner: Yeah, that wasn’t your scene.

Wu Fei: Right, right. And then- um- at the time China had a lot of those kind of pirated cd’s and cassette tapes that my professors were huge fans- they had like their secret buyer and vendor that would come to our conservatory every Friday afternoon, and outside the gate they would have this like big bag of stuff and then our teachers were like squatting down- it was like alright start digging this stuff. So we’re like, oh what are we digging? So, I start like digging this stuff. And then I got uh- cd’s, the first thing that blew my mind, kind of made me really want to come to America, was a string quartet- called Kronos Quartet. The Kronos Quartet- actually they were based in San Francisco, some of the most- one of the best string quartets in the world. And not them playing Shostakovich or Brahmes, it was them playing Jimi Hendrix.

John Gardner: Oh… wow.

Wu Fei: Oh my goodness, because I had to have been listening to a lot of string quartet repertoire. Uh, for like years because- for my study. But then the first time hearing a string quartet playing Jimi Hendrix- I didn’t even know who Jimi Hendrix was- what, but like that? I need to know who they are. So that, um- so after that I um- I basically made up my mind and um- I was very interested in learning English as well, throughout my childhood. So, at the time I was the best, kind of, English translator for the school, so every time there was a scholar- exchange scholar from Australia, from England, I was the school translator. So I got to chat with the professors and some musicians- um, became friends with them and so I was- I was, Oh wow! This is really- and from just learning the information from them, from what they were listening to and what they were performing, I was like I have got to check it out, wherever I- So I applied to a few schools primarily in America and in England, and I got a nice scholarship from University of North Texas music college and I was like alright, cause you know I was a poor student and I was like okay whoever, I just need to get over there, explore (Laughs).

John Gardner: Yeah, that’s great. Good. And it was Texas. I respect that. I’m from Texas myself so, yeah so I’m excited to hear that.

Wu Fei: At Denton, Texas?

John Gardner: Denton, Texas. Oh yeah, yep. So, being from Texas growing up when I did at a similar age, I can’t- I can picture hearing Jimi Hendrix the first time. I can remember hearing a lot of that music for the first time, but it wasn’t- I can’t picture what that’s like to have a whole repertoire of music that you’ve studied, and then to hear Jimmi Hendrix for the first time. Or to hear Michael Jackson, Madonna, what was it about- did something strike a chord with you- I don’t know if you’re able to describe what that is. Can you describe, what was different about this music that you were hearing?

Wu Fei: From Michael Jackson, Madonna, and Jimi Hendrix?

John Gardner: And then Jimi Hendrix, yeah.

Wu Fei: I think the word is freedom. Yeah. I had been craving for freedom. That’s what um- in Chinese culture, it’s kind of the opposite. You know, you’ve got to obey the old philosophies, you’ve got to obey the elderlies, I mean there’s a lot of wisdom that’s in it. However, as a young kid, especially for my personality, I just you know like, you can’t tell me what I want to do, but I have to. Constantly being told like I shouldn’t be myself, a lot, um so when I heard um- especially the artists from America I thought wow! They’re just- I didn’t know it was freedom I was looking for but they were just outrageously out there, that they didn’t give a damn about- you know, that kind of attitude. And then I just felt like, Oh! Okay that’s what I’ve been wanting- to just like yell my lungs out and I- then you know, I will be criticized by my professor like I should not do this I should not do that. Yeah, so I think it was freedom.

John Gardner: Thank you for that insight. That really makes a lot of sense and- that’s eye-opening.

Wu Fei: Even hearing- first time hearing Michael Jackson (Impression) like it was, “what”?! (Laughs).

John Gardner: So, you’re applying to London you said? You’re applying to the U.S for sure, you get accepted to go to the U.S-

Wu Fei: Yes, the U.S, yes.

John Gardner: What were your parents thinking this time? Were they like, oh, you have to stay here? They could see that you were getting out on your own, not liking it, or how- how was it at home?

Wu Fei: My mom- I think they were both emotionally sad, but they understood I must do what I had to do. They also understand- they both went through the cultural revolution. They were- they had been concerned about the stability of the society. Um- some of my family was from a capitalist family from before nineteen forty nine, so they were like wow. So with that (?) in the family, so there’s always doubt like, you know, is the government gonna do this kind of thing again? If they do it to me- I’m old enough to- my child- please, you know. So, I think there’s that kind of a mindset as well. And um for- for women, I think also in China. I didn’t feel much that women were not supposed to do- ‘cause I was in the generation that, um, that’s one thing I think Chairman Mao did really well was to equalize the women and men. So, I was in the generation of girls- only child, and then, to really achieve- to pursue what I could do, you know, as the boys. But still, I think from the older generation, they can feel is it temporary? Is it going to change? Which it did actually. It is a big change, like going back to the old time that women aren’t really encouraged to, like, kids who are like ten- ten, twenty years younger then in China are kind of- the whole mentality is going back.

John Gardner: See, we forget that progress isn’t inevitable. It isn’t always going forward.

Wu Fei: Ooh yeah. The other way there now. Big time. So that’s uh, yeah. So, that’s- My parents were- after I left, they- Later I found out that they were both sad for a long time because I’m their only child and then left when I was twenty and it was like a huge change. They both got quite ill actually. Their health declined, because they were missing me.

John Gardner: Wow.

Wu Fei: Yeah.

John Gardner: Imagine it was a heavy thing.

Wu Fei: Yeah, yeah.

John Gardner: So, for you, you’re, you finally reached the U.S. You see a future forming there. What were your first musical interactions when you- when you arrived in the U.S? Did you arrive with your-

Wu Fei: Guzheng? Mhm. I did. That’s the only thing I decided to bring with me. It was- well some scores too, and some clothes.Uh, But I didn’t know I was gonna just, you know, play Guzheng, because in the Chinese conservatory, where I studied composition.So my primary instrument was piano. And my friends from China didn’t even know I played the Guzheng. I had no opportunity to play, like, the exams, everything was on piano. So, a lot of them didn’t know I played the Guzheng. And uh, so I uh, and I just- I can’t shove a piano with me, but at least let me take this with me. And um, the first experience in North Texas, I have to say, ah it was so cool. Um, West-African drumming and Dance ensemble. Uh, Northern Indian Raga. And marching band, the drummer, the percussion is, practice in the heat in the middle of the campus. Marching band, but they were so good, we don’t have marching bands in China. So you could, for like making football or games- at that time I didn’t know what it was for, I was like wow! So even those three things, immediately, the other stuff- actually, in the curriculum. The core curriculum, as a composer, I came as a composition student. There weren’t that much difference from the conservatory I went to in Beijing. Very similar, but I mean in the states, they studied more of the German school in theory, for music theory versus in China, we study mostly the Russian and French schools. Um, but really it comes on the notes, it’s really the same. Just try to, you know. Right, theory is just like different words, you’re playing the same things. Um, so um, but I think the best fun I had was outside the core curriculum, that I had and then later it was, um, at Mill’s College when I went to um, for graduate study. Also for music composition, when I discovered, uh improvisation. I know, I know, I didn’t discover improvisation until I was like twenty-four, twenty-five.

John Gardner: Really?

Wu Fei: Yeah, I was like whoa! I can do this? I was criticized big time by parents, teachers, “Stop doing that”. Stop messing around. No. Practice repertoire. So finally I was like, I can do this? Really? Uh, people have a career doing this! What?! (Laughs) So that was life-changing. Yeah.

John Gardner: Within the rules and the form, tell us-

Wu Fei: Right. But the point is to be free from learning all the rules that’s out there, right?

John Gardner: That’s that balance. To be able to improvise, correct? How would you- how would you describe what is improvisation within music? Is it different- because you improvise quite a bit- is it different in different styles of music? Is Jazz improvisation different from improvising in other forms of music?

Wu Fei: Um, I think in terms of forms, there are definitely differences between cultures and- but when it comes to the core, what it is about um, I don’t see any difference, just about liberating oneself, being who you are, or liberating yourself to embrace another person. It’s like trust and friendship, and as simple as that, right? It’s like a cook-up dish, as long as it tastes good, that’s all that matters. Yeah (Laughs).

John Gardner: That’s really great. What are some of the- so you brought us all the way through to university and then you continue with your studies in music. So, what are some of these- these- you said building – building, making music together, improvising with other musicians. What- where has this music brought you now? I know you’ve done things of your own volition, sitting down and your composition has come through recently, (Hello Golden Mountain), We can talk about that, but what would’ve been some of your, those relationship experiences through music?

Wu Fei: Uh, wow. I’ve collaborated with a lot of artists from, some, I don’t even remember their names anymore, um. It’s just been a big learning experience. Learning about others, learning about myself from learning others. That’s just been a big self-learning and self-improving. I feel like I’ve become a better musician from learning from others, uh, touring in Europe. That was the first time I actually started playing with musicians from Mali, from Senegal, from Lebanon. I think world music actually in Europe started a lot earlier than the U.S. I think like Ravi Shankar, they were already having fun in the seventies and so by the time I went over there in two-thousand-six for the first time, I wasn’t really that special anymore, you know.(Laughs). They’ve seen a lot. But, oh I have something new as well, so- but the instruments, it’s not like they were super standy by the instrument, by the form. Uh, but uh- yeah, learning, playing, even watching like folk singers from Sardinia, how they do it, or how like- just learning about what I thought music was. That actually, it wasn’t what I thought music was, and just be overjoyed about, wow! This is- I’m just so happy to be a part of it and uh- I’m much more grounded in a way than, because I was trained as a music prodigy. And being raised as a single child is like, you get both parents’ attention on you at all times. It was like, please talk to someone else, and- too much attention.Too much kind of the little music star- the star student in the school every stage in my life basically. Um, I mean of course as a soloist, you’ve got to have that confidence, but when you want to learn arts and humanity, it may get in your way of learning, of improving. So that, I felt, I’ve had a struggle but I’ve come around and stepped out of myself. And we say- there’s a saying in China, 井底之蛙, “The frog at the bottom of a well thinking the sky is only as big as the well”. And then one day he jumps out and, Oh! Is this?- So I- that has been my- my change, yeah.

John Gardner: Wow, look at that.

Wu Fei: Yeah, yeah. Now, I see the sky is unlimited. I used to think it is only that big.

John Gardner: Yeah. That’s great. We- we have a saying for our nonprofit and for the podcast. “Opening minds through music”. So it’s that same concept of broadening the horizons through, maybe they hear something for the first time, maybe we can- we believe maybe hear the music of a culture, maybe that opens you up to the people of the culture. When you- when you were hearing this music growing up, you sound very fortunate, you were hearing music from all over the world. Now you’ve been touring all over the world as a musician. Do you feel like being familiar with the music prepares you or conditions you towards the culture when you experience it? Or it’s just music, you hear it’s different from experiencing.

Wu Fei: Um, hm. That is a very interesting question, I’ve never thought of it that way, um. When I collaborated, I said, with Indian musicians in person, it felt different from what I remembered what Indian music sounded like as a kid. Yeah. I think the Indian music I heard as a kid was more Bollywood, was for the movies. And then when I collaborated with someone in person and I see the tabla, I see the drone. I hear them singing, it sounds like total different- different from different culture so I don’t know if it really prepared me or did nothing. (Laughs) Because interacting with one-on-one in person is so different than yeah just hearing a cassette tape, yeah, yeah.

John Gardner: What did you think when you first came to the U.S from the things you had heard about U.S culture, from the freedom you heard in the music, what was your impression when you arrived, were you like I was being lied to the whole time? Or was it this is what I’ve been hearing about?

Wu Fei: Mm. It was- I think I felt a little- not, I wouldn’t say disappointed, I was a little confused that I thought I was gonna learn a whole different set of stuff in the music college in the U.S, but I wasn’t really. Yeah, so that was sort of like “aaah” I thought I was gonna learn Jimi Hendrix

John Gardner: (Laughs) At the conservatory. If only.

Wu Fei: So I guess the conservatory, they all learn kind of the same things. Uh, the fun part was outside of school, but Mill’s college was different, it was very different. It wasn’t a traditional music conservatory type of academy. There was a lot of really brilliant people who wanted to- maybe they weren’t even interested, it wasn’t music- something that, you could call it music, or they just wanna do weird things. And I was- I think that’s exactly what I needed. Because I didn’t need to be in another conservatory environment. I needed to-

John Gardner: You’d done the conservatory thing.

Wu Fei: -get out of. Right, it was too much conservatory. And at the beginning I was confused, I was like why am I going to school with people who don’t even read music. But then I learned, oh these are math geniuses. But then they start that (?), but that- that’s music. If you see it that way, or architect, they draw, oh that could look like scores and it just completely made- brings you out of your box to a totally different dimension when you can see the world. So I think that America had really put me in an- enabled me, um, enabled my imagination. Or unleashed my imagination to be able to do what I do. Which China, I always say, it prepared me with a lot of crafts, foundation, um. So now when I do improvisation, we also have another saying that [shen dao shi dao], it may not be for music, but I think it might for calligraphy, or for martial arts, they’re all the same thing anyways, Is that when your heart is there, your fingers are there at the same time. When your fingers are there, your heart is there. So that’s like the ultimate stage of you don’t- you have no limitation anymore, you’re just like doing it as it’s happening. Um, so. So that’s um- yeah, without- without either side it wouldn’t put me to what I can play, what I can express basically.

John Gardner: Makes sense. You have to have the technical ability to get those emotions, to get those thoughts to come out of it. One thing that jumped out at me is that, when you mentioned that in China you were going through conservatory and the textbooks, the music is from a totally different part of the world. You said the conservatories are the same? Similar? That jumped out to me as well. You’re in the U.S and it’s the exact same thing, they’re using German as their frame of reference. Same thing, they’re not studying within the country that they are, they already have a system set up in Germany, we can just go down that road.

Wu Fei: Right, right, right. Yeah. The Europeans, eh?

John Gardner: So, it’s interesting. So you- you mentioned being able to play the music that you play and the improvisation that you’re able to do, What is the music you play? How would you describe the music Wu Fei makes?

Wu Fei: Hm, wow. That’s a big question, aaah. Maybe a modern Mulan. Something like that. I would say really ancient and really futuristic. Kind of like an old ancient soul that’s trapped in this like feisty woman (Laughs).

John Gardner: Great, really great. So, right now I think you’re wrapping up the residency with chatterbird. Is that right?

Wu Fei: Yeah, well we still are going to do more community outreach for this season. We feel like, um we feel the premiere was a success. But there are still so many people in our community who didn’t know about it and as you know, our country is just going- just really every day is a- heavier than the previous it’s just been going on for a very long time, several hundred days. And uh, we realized our youth is- I’m a mother of two and I really feel that reaching out to a younger generation is quite of a mission. So we’re doing quite a few school visits to- to, yeah, talk to students.

John Gardner: Could you explain your work with chatterbird? What’s the nature of your residency, what’s the projects you’ve been doing there?

Wu Fei: From the first year, um, I started to write kind of shorter um shorter pieces. As an intro of me on the- They’re uh- they have a small ensemble and very young, this is their fifth or maybe sixth year. So I joined them two years ago, they’re more in the creative type, they’re mostly classical- classically trained musicians, but they really want to be creative and be who they are rather than only performing repertoire.

John Gardner: Sounds like a great fit for you.

Wu Fei: Yeah, they wanna play modern living composers instead of dead composers or- and that’s been one of really their biggest missions and they want to support women musicians and women composers. Women of colors and that’s just a really wonderful. Um, their artistic director, Selene Saxton, she’s also wonderful flautist, had this very determined vision to shake up the community. Also what national has been known, uh nationally that hasn’t included these other many rounds of creativity so this is a really good time that we give a really big stir-up, and then the second year, we um- and Selene, she’s also a professional grant writer and we um have- even when we hang out have always had these like ideas and then she probably pays attention to my crazy ideas, I probably forget what I’ve said before and then Hello Gold Mountain came about when she noticed lots of arts grants that support original composition. Since she’s been classical and she also writes grants for the national symphony so she’s quite sharp about this information. And uh, and at the time, yeah I felt um the need, even for my own family that uh the story of two groups of people doing the hardest time in their contemporary history that were both, you know, going through being invaded, being, you know, killed. Escaping the chaos and then still deciding to, the Jewish people and the Chinese people, decided to create their life together. And uh, when the war ended and the Jews couldn’t stay in China because civil war broke out in China, so the Jews who had lived in Shanghai for ten years had to leave again, and they were like Oh gosh wow! This is just- and then they came to San Francisco most of them. Um- I felt at that time for what America was going through, even internationally, I felt as a composer that I need to do something rather than alright I’m gonna just do practice in my own little comfort zone. And what can I do to contribute to civil engagement as well? So, that- we got the grant and then we made- they’re just- I think that the mission was so profound um, there were so many communities that just wanted to join us and yeah, so that was a fantastic experience.

John Gardner: So that’s- This came through Chatterbird. And the project was Hello Gold Mountain.

Wu Fei: Yes. Mhm.

John Gardner: Did you do the composing for Hello Gold Mountain? Did you- What was your role in that?

Wu Fei: Oh, I composed every note.

John Gardner: Every note?

Wu Fei: Yeah, I mean there’s um- there’s also improvisation that uh, we had a guest, an oud master Shanir Blumenkranz of course when he improvises, you hear him improvising, but everything I designed, I wrote.

John Gardner: So your concept- Hello Gold Mountain was your concept?

Wu Fei: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. Like I- Actually it was my handwritten score. And I had copies, I didn’t know how to do the computers, like I had to write it on paper so I feel like it’s me and so uh, every note, yeah. And uh kinda…

John Gardner: Well it’s a beautiful piece. Beautiful story and sentiment behind it.

Wu Fei: Thank you. Thank you. We hope to  reach out more. There’s been other organizations and orchestras been interested as well, so we hope to bring it, reach out as wide as we can.

John Gardner: Your description of Chatterbird reminds me quite a bit of- a few episodes back we interviewed Mei-Ann Chen from the Chicago Sinfonietta, and it seems like the missions overlap quite a bit there, so-

Wu Fei: Yeah, there’re so many, even from my own friend circle, many musicians have been feeling similar sentiment that they want to do more to engage with education and society rather than just being a professional musician. I mean, yeah that’s what we do no matter what, but we could do, we could give a lot more impact and through arts and to help our society and humanity to have more- to have more conscience. If we can do that we are more powerful to do that, we should do that.

John Gardner: That’s great. That’s the real power of the arts right there. That’s huge. That’s important.

Wu Fei: It is, it is. I’ve never been taught to actually think like that as an artist, but just climb your own ivory tower. Um, but yeah I’m glad I- and it punched my heart, so like alright, I need to fight back, how do I do it?

John Gardner: Wonderful. In respect of your time, we’ll start to wrap up, but I have to ask about your instrument. For the listeners, we have videos and if you don’t mind, we’ll share some of your amazing improvisations. I love all the videos you put out. I don’t know how many times I’ve watched your laundry matt improvisation, I love that it was so great.

Wu Fei: Oh, oh yeah! That’s fun!

John Gardner: -with the tray and everything, so we’ll have on our website, wmfpodcast.org with your, based on the episode number. But maybe some people aren’t visiting the website, they’re not seeing the Guzheng.

Wu Fei: Mhm.

John Gardner: Could you describe a little bit about your instrument?

Wu Fei: Yeah. The Guzheng is a very long, big- almost like a flat harp that’s a big rectangle or shape, uh, it’s about five feet long, twenty one strings, it sits on a stand. Kind of Keyboard stand or a Guzheng stand. You pluck right-hand side, it’s very similar to playing the harp, a lot of plucking, and uh each string underneath there’s a bridge, a movable bridge that can do fine-tuning. And left hand traditionally stays on the left-hand side to create bending of the pitch or vibrato. But contemporary style, left hand also comes over a lot to join the right hand to play on the right hand side almost how you play the piano. Kind of um- So that’s what the instrument looks like and probably a lot of listeners have seen like a kung-fu movie or something where the ultimate fighter play my instrument to defeat enemies, yeah that’s my instrument(Laughs). Ultimate fighters always play the Guzheng. And flying around there, that’s what I do.

John Gardner: Once you get the flying part down, but everything else you’ve got down.

Wu Fei: Yeah, yeah I know. I’ve gotta practice that part. That’ll be my next improvisation maybe(Laughs)

John Gardner: Great, well good. That’s a good description of it. We can visualize, it helps us picture. We’ll have videos and we’ll have photographs.

Wu Fei: And about 2500 years of history. I have to thank whoever had the time to come up with this instrument.

John Gardner: It’s complicated. No doubt. Well to wrap up, we’ll do just kind of a lightning round. So, it’ll be just quick questions. We don’t have time to go into them. It’ll be just short answers, but we’ll start off nice and easy. What is your favorite food?

Wu Fei: Chinese dumplings.

John Gardner: There you go.

Wu Fei:Homemade dumplings.

John Gardner: Homemade makes all the difference, so. Outside of music, do you have any hobbies? What do you do outside of creating music?

Wu Fei: Uh… Travel. Travel really um- I mean probably not really- hm. Interesting, I haven’t- What do I like outside of music? I like, read about world situations. I guess that’s also being from beijing, we like news. I do, so- Sports. I like sports.

John Gardner: Do you?

Wu Fei: Yeah, I’ve been a sports fan- soccer, since I was a kid, so. Yeah, yeah. I like sports a lot.

John Gardner: What’s been on your mind lately?

Wu Fei: Oh, wow. I don’t really- to um, my parents just moved from Beijing to Nashville to live with us for good so my mind lately- besides music, the next concerts, the next composition. There’s a lot of family stuff that really keeps me busy. Helping my parents settling in. Getting them medical insurance- seniors. New, oh wow, setting up bank accounts for them, all this house stuff. My kids’ school activities. So when I have time, I think about my work, and uh- but I’ve been wanting to work on- besides my next solo improvi- I mean composition on the Guzheng, and I’ve always wanted to actually come up with my own version of some of my favorite composers’ repertoire on the Guzheng, like a piece from Bach, a piece from Ravel, and see just- I wanna challenge myself because improvisation, after I do it a while, freestyle, you want to get back into structure. To get that kind of muscle trained again so that’s what I really want to do is like, take on the next challenge, see what I can do, um-

John Gardner: When can we expect your Jimmi Hendrix cover?

Wu Fei: Oh wow, that, yes I would just lift it up and-

John Gardner: No burning, no burning.

Wu Fei: Yeah, no burning (laughs). But I would also like to talk about- there’s gonna be a record release of my new dual project with Abigail Washburn who is a banjo singer-songwriter from Nashville so uh- we have a record release of a mixture of American folk songs and Chinese folk songs, and sung in English and Chinese. Yep. So, that’s gonna come out next spring on Smithsonian folkways recordings and then my solo and then uh try to get Hello Gold Mountain to the rest of the country. It’s a very tough work ‘cause it’s a big piece, it’s not easy to get an orchestra touring around, so it’s plenty in the- in the spectrum, in the future, or the next season after the current season and hopefully I’ll bring either uh any of, all of my new projects to Chicago and to meet the World Music Foundation’s viewers, yeah.

John Gardner: We’d love to be out there and definitely our audience is interested in everything you have going on. I was actually, that was going to be my next question, so I’m just gonna say the question but you’ve already said the answer. So, and all these great things that you’ve been doing. I’m sure there’s quite a bit in the works so, what’s next? What’s coming up for Wu Fei? You’ve already answered, so we’ll copy that and put it over there.

Wu Fei: Ok. Oh great. Sorry for jumping over (Laughs).

John Gardner: So then, we’ll end with one last question. Just a quick question, but it’s kind of a big question. So if you could ask the universe just one question and you’d know the entire answer, and you can act on that answer, you get the truth, full answer. What would be the one question you would ask the universe?

Wu Fei: Right now?

John Gardner: Right now.

Wu Fei: Oh god. Why can’t Donald Trump be impeached?

John Gardner: There it is. It’s all timely, so.

Wu Fei: And then we can all kind of relax- yes, that would be my question.

John Gardner: That’s great. And then we see what comes next.

Wu Fei: Yeah, yeah.

John Gardner: Wu Fei, thank you so much for your time. Clearly, whoever those professors where that came, I don’t know if it’s your bone structure, I don’t know if it’s your memory of rhythms, but you undoubtedly have something special and thank you so much for sharing your music and for sharing your time with us.

Wu Fei: Thank you John. Thank you. I want to thank the World Music Foundation for having me and, thank you so much.

John Gardner: A pleasure.

(Outro Music Plays)

John Gardner: Haha, add that to her many talents. We’re gonna add “fortune telling” to Wu Fei’s credentials., because since we first recorded this, last year, as a matter of fact, President Donald Trump was impeached, so the Universe has answered Wu Fei. The answer to your question is “Wednesday December 18th, 2019. That’s when President Trump was impeached. 

Now, we’ll see, as I said, what will happen next.  In the world, in the economy, in politics- I have no idea, but I can tell you this: what happens next. Wu Fei will continue to make amazing music and be just an all-around awesome person. Now, am I fortune teller? No. But she has too much talent, too much discipline, too much personality, to do anything but that. 

And here’s something else fantastic happening. Next week, and amazing interview that I’m through the roof about- we have Rhymefest coming up. And get this: as part of that interview, Rhymefest, a grammy award-winning hip-hop artist, also academy award-winner, golden globe winner, internationally-known artist- He has chosen and allowed the World Music Foundation to world premiere one of his unreleased tracks from his upcoming album. You won’t wanna miss that. 

Also, you’ll get all kinds of great conversation like this:

(Clip from Rhymefest Interview)

RHYMEFEST: Hip-hop is the only language that is spoken globally. Anywhere you go, hip-hop tells you how to dress, how to walk, like- I’ve gone to the mountains of Colombia, in Palenque villages in Colombia, and seen somebody rappin’ in different languages, and I come up and rap in English, and we knew exactly what each other was doin’ and sayin’. We were speakin’ that language. There’s no other language in the history of the world like that! History of the world! The power that define hip-hop- it is a alien way of communicatin’.

John Gardner: So that’s coming up for you next week, but until then, remember to listen widely. Open ears equals open minds. And we’ll catch you next time.

For The Extra Curious



Musical Mentions